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History of South Foreland Lighthouse

South Foreland Lighthouse at night lit specially for Her Majesty The Queen's platinum jubilee in June 2022
South Foreland Lighthouse at night lit specially for Her Majesty The Queen's platinum jubilee in June 2022 | © National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

South Foreland Lighthouse as you see it today was built in 1846, but there has been a light here since the 1300s. The lighthouse played a key role in the development of wireless communication and electricity, alongside helping watching over the dark days of the Second World War. From its vantage point overlooking the English Channel, the lighthouse has a history to talk about.

In the beginning

The Goodwin Sands, also known at the Great Ship Swallower, cover a huge area of the English Channel between South Foreland and Ramsgate. The 10-mile sandbank, which is hidden below the sea for most of the time, has long been a graveyard for ships and mariners alike.

Since the 14th century there have been warning lights positioned on the White Cliffs, which overlook the Sands, to warn ships of this hazard. In 1367 Brother Nicholas de Legh hung a lantern on the cliff face in order to warn sailors of the danger.

The first lighthouse

The first recognisable lighthouses were built on South Foreland in 1635. A distinguished soldier, Sir John Meldrum, arranged for two iron braziers to be put in place – an upper and a lower - and from that time onwards there has always been two lighthouses here.

Meldrum’s lease was taken over in 1642 by Robert Osbolton, and on the death of Osbolton’s son in 1715, Greenwich Hospital took over. One of their first improvements was to put glazing around the fires, but unfortunately the smoke deposits blocked the lights and after 12 years the glass had to be removed.

In 1793 John Yenn redesigned the upper lighthouse using oil lamps, and two years later the lower light was rebuilt to a similar design.

The current lighthouse

The Upper and Lower Lighthouses that you see today were built in the middle of the 19th century. The Upper Lighthouse was heightened and refurbished in 1842, and in 1846 the Lower Light was fully rebuilt. The works were supervised by one of the greatest Victorian engineers, James Walker FRS (1781-1862).

The Upper and Lower Lighthouses can be seen from the land but are even more obvious when viewed from the sea. Sailors would line up the two lights, and when the Upper Light shone directly above the Lower Light, they knew they could steer safely past the southern tip of the Goodwin Sands.

Time for change

By 1904 the movement of the Goodwin Sands meant that this arrangement was no longer safe and the lower light was decommissioned. A much brighter flashing light was installed in the Upper Lighthouse, and for most of the 20th century South Foreland shone out nightly over the Straits of Dover.

The lighthouse was decommissioned on 30 September 1988, when modern navigational aids meant the light was no longer needed. The light remained dark until June 2012 when it once again shone out across the English Channel in honour of Queen Elizabeth II's diamond jubilee.


Mains electricity was brought to South Foreland for the first time in 1922, and the 50-year old Holmes generator was finally shut down. At the same time some of the mechanical functions in the lighthouse were automated.

The lighthouse finally became fully automated in 1969, and the resident keepers were transferred to other lighthouses. The National Trust took over the care of South Foreland in 1989 once the lighthouse had been decommissioned.

Image of South Foreland Lighthouse painted grey and surrounded by Second World War buildings under construction
South Foreland Lighthouse painted grey and surrounded by Second World War buildings under construction | © National Trust/Dover Museum

South Foreland Lighthouse at war

On the cliffs close to South Foreland, three important gun positions were built during the Second World War. Although quickly constructed and only fired sparingly, the guns were an important part of Britain’s defence. Once operational they became known collectively as a Fortress, and their headquarters were near the edge of the lighthouse grounds.

During the war the light at South Foreland lighthouse was turned off to stop it helping the enemy, and the tower was camouflaged. Even disguised, the lighthouse was damaged; shrapnel marks can be seen inside the lamp room.

South Foreland had a radar system which allowed it to track shipping in the channel, enabling guns to fire at night and in poor visibility. This didn’t please the locals, who thought soldiers were bored on foggy nights rather than actually targeting the enemy!

The Knott family at South Foreland

The Knott family were keepers at South Foreland for five successive generations. With eight family members being involved in lighthouse keeping, it is thought by historians that during the period 1730-1910, the Knotts had probably been the longest serving family of keepers in lighthouse history.

Members of the family observed many historic events. In 1759 William Knott would have seen Admiral Hawke’s fleet as it sailed down the Channel to meet the French navy at the Battle of Quiberon Bay, and Henry Knott is known to have lowered the flag in respect to HMS Victory when she sailed past South Foreland in 1778.

Evidence of the Knott family and their links with the local community can still be found today. John Knott, who died in the lighthouse service in 1851, is buried in the churchyard in St Margaret’s-at-Cliffe, where a nearby lane is also named after the family.

South Foreland Lighthouse
South Foreland Lighthouse | © National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

Wireless communication at South Foreland

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Corporation of Trinity House – who owned the lighthouse - were looking for a reliable system of communicating with their lightships and off-shore lighthouses. Guglielmo Marconi’s company offered an innovative way of using ship-to-shore wireless telegraphy.

Successful experiments

High on the cliffs and overlooking the English Channel, South Foreland was an ideal location for experiments using this new technology. In December 1898, Marconi’s assistant, George Kemp, went out to the East Goodwin Lightship, 12 miles away, whilst Marconi supervised the building of a large aerial on land, close to the lighthouse. On Christmas Eve 1898 the first ever ship-to-shore radio transmission was recorded at South Foreland and Christmas greetings were exchanged.

An international first

Following this success, the French government allowed Marconi to install transmission equipment in Wimereux in northern France. On 27 March 1899 he sent the first international radio transmission to South Foreland Lighthouse.

Emergency assistance

A few weeks later the first SOS messages were sent when the steamship RF Matthews collided with the East Goodwin Lightship in thick fog and Trinity House were able to send urgent assistance. Within ten years a worldwide network of transmitter stations had been set up.

Experiments in electricity at South Foreland

Michael Faraday was one of the most influential scientists in the world. Born in 1791 into a poor blacksmith family and with no education, he would become one of the most respected inventors of the age.

Faraday's discoveries harnessed the power of electricity and developed the first ever electric motors. He worked as Scientific Advisor to Trinity House, who owned the lighthouse at the time, and transformed its fleet of lighthouses into the most technologically advanced in the world.

The scientific revolution at Trinity House led, in 1858, to South Foreland being the first lighthouse ever to shine an electric light.

Image of a clockwork mechanism that turned the rotating lantern at South Foreland Lighthouse before electrification

Gifts in wills

Did you know that gifts in wills are one of he National Trust's largest sources of income? Gifts in wills are vital in protecting all our places and supporters can even choose where their gift goes. These gifts are used right at the heart of our work, so any gift, no matter the size, makes a real difference. Illustrated - the clockwork mechanism that rotates the lens at South Foreland Lighthouse. Maintaining this complex machine is an on-going and costly challenge.

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